Friday, December 24, 2010
Easy. Big Fat Ugly Bug-Faced Baby-Eating O'Brian. Why not?:
Happy Festivus (one day late)!
Sunday, December 19, 2010
In the writing of the last post, written in the midst of a depressing batch of papers and finals, with not only a huge batch behind me but more and more of the same stretching out ahead of me, I figured out what I hate most about grading. In grading, I come face-to-face with futility and hopelessness. Sometimes, I blame myself for their poor performance. "If I had done this, they would not fail," I think. "If I had only done that, they would not fail." Blaming myself, however, means that I can do something next time to improve my teaching and therefore improve their performance.
What I face right now is (not just) the self-blame. What I face right now is the overwhelming awareness that most of my students are not at all ready for college and that I have absolutely no idea how to make them ready, nor the energy to implement the ideas should I have them. On top of that, I am also coping with their chaotic lives, which makes my life more chaotic, and I am worn to a complete frazzle in doing so (although, at least I get paid to deal with their chaos, they have to pay for the privlege of this particular element within their chaos). I am pretty sure that most of them feel the same way about their abilities and chaos, too.
Every day, I feel like I am throwing myself against a huge boulder, trying to move it but ending up worn out and not having budged the boulder one inch. I feel like what I am doing for a living has no point. My book has a huge point; and I don't care if only the people who review it read it, the book still has an enormous point. The teaching seems to have less and less and less of a point with each semester. That's what disappears, even as I bounce back: that sense of doing something useful.
This huge cloud of futility hangs about me every day. I can't stand it and can't stand myself, yet I don't know how to dissipate it. The Gentleman Caller looks at my job and says that the big problem is that there is no balance to it; and he is right. He isn't talking about the kind of "work/life" balance around which these discussions usually revolve. He means that, if you put research, service, and teaching on a three-way scale (if such a device existed), the teaching tray would thunk immediately to the ground and scatter everything else across the room. Then, in the teaching, if you were to put the actual preparation for class and teaching about history against the grading and accommodating the perpetual string of crises, the grading and crises would do the same. That's some heavy-duty lead weights that make up those last two, and they drag me down.
Sometimes, I feel as if I am not a history teacher but a social worker. To be honest, 80-90% of the crises they bring to me are real. They bring me things like unplanned pregnancies that cause them to get thrown out of their homes, job losses, spousal job losses, deaths in the family, deployments in the family, foreclosures on homes, two babies a year apart who get the flu, husbands who do nothing to help with the family, the flu, muggings, sexual assault -- REAL problems, not just the whiny snowflakey cluelessness (although they are there, too).
I really do feel for these students; and, if you do the math in which you add together the high risk lives that these students live, the urgency of the semester, and the way that they overtax themselves out of necessity, then multiply by the number of students that we are assigned, well, you see a depressing sample of this Great Depression That Is Not A Depression. You also have a pretty huge caseload and absolutely no power or resources to do anything to alleviate their real problems. I do what I can: an extended deadline here, a make-up exam there. Still, it takes so much out of me and I end up being overworked in accommodating their crises, I end up being worn out with sympathy, and I end up feeling like an uncaring bitch trying to hide how frustrated and overwhelmed I feel.
All of which leads to burnout. It happens; but I honestly don't know how to avoid it nor how to alleviate it. How do I get my groove back? How do I deal with this social work aspect of the job? How do I not feel so overwhelmed and frustrated? How do I get back to approaching this lack of college preparation as a problem to be solved rather than a bonfire in which I am trapped or a sea in which I am drowning or a gigantic safe that is flattening me like a cartoon coyote?
I feel very alone in feeling this way, too, as if I'm expressing a gigantic character flaw that unentitles me to my job and my profession. After all, aren't teachers supposed to be superhuman, caring entirely about all students all the time and just love love LOVING our job so much that we don't care that we are every politician's strawman for the problems of the education system and love love LOVING our job so much that we don't care that our pay is cut and the resources for doing our job have disappeared? Hell, I have a job, so I should just shut up and be happy or get the hell out.
At least, that's what I hear in my head: that I am not entitled to my job because I feel so overwhelmed and so I should just quit and do something else and let someone more entitled who will love love LOVE it and not feel overwhelmed and burned out take my place. That just seems too harsh an assessment. That seems too wrong because, really, I feel more like I'm in a stressed marriage in which both parties do not want a divorce, and yet both parties do not want the marriage to continue as it is because they are so unhappy.
I don't want to not teach. I want to be able to teach history; but I don't want to feel like this for nine months out of the year, and I don't want to feel like an unprofessional, whining wimp who can't take real work. I don't want to BE an unprofessional, whining wimp who can't take real work. I don't want to walk around in this cloud of futility; and I don't want to keep losing these little pieces every semester and never get them back. I want to feel like I am doing something useful.
Saturday, December 18, 2010
I cannot help myself. "Do, or do not. There is not try."
Monday, December 13, 2010
In doing the project, participants ultimately should reflect upon the past year while also looking forward to and planning for the next year. Well, I reflect constantly. It's what I do. Action for the next year? Well, I make resolutions pretty much semesterly. I can also plan the hell out of something to the point that the planning itself gets in the way of making the something happen. So, the project was not unknown territory to me. I can draw a map in 3-D of it. I had no goal going in other than to play and to work a little on the discipline of writing every day.
In writing in such a disciplined way on this Reverb project, and perhaps also because similar types of questions kept cropping up, I couldn't ignore this one, bass-line bitch of my life from whence all other bitching emerges. In fact, in listening to that bass-line bitch, I realized that I am actually avoiding doing something about that bitch by participating in the Reverb project.
You see, I keep coming back to "I need time to write." "I need time to write." "I need time to write." Yet, here I am taking 30 minutes to an hour to compose a post that says, "I need time to write." Might I write what I am lamenting being unable to write during that time? Might that time be that coveted time to write?
Well, not exactly, but almost. As I first wrote, I can bullshit my way through any justification of what I'm doing. I blog, therefore, I'm writing, therefore, blogging in constructive. I'm not going to deny that. I tend to believe that any writing is an empirical good as an exercise. Still, it's not going anywhere. Blogging is just fun. A hobby. I need to be more focused on the book writing.
I use this excuse for spending this time on blogging rather than the book. If you've ever written anything long and complicated, you know that a few minutes here and there becomes very frustrating very quickly. Sporadic writing means that you lose your train of thought or you have to refresh yourself on the material you are writing. Then, the groove! You have to get into the groove! (Dammit. Now the Madonna song has morphed into an earworm.) You need about two hours to be marginally productive and generate some sort of forward motion. At least, I do. If I don't have two hours, minimum, then any writing at all on the book becomes futile. I end up waiting to have those two or more hours in a row for several days on end to really write. A good weekend is nice, one with no other commitments. Don't get me wrong: this is possible. Just not after about the mid-term.
Then, I realized how much time I have been taking for Reverb, and I realized that I have actually exercised some discipline in making and using that time. Perhaps that time could be put to a different use, one spent addressing the topic that kept cropping up. Perhaps I should transfer that time spent on reflecting and bitching about how little time I have to write to time actually spent on the book. Furthermore, perhaps I should not think of this particular writing time, now spent on the book, as moving the project forward. Instead, I should consider it a means of keeping my head in the project so as not to lose as much of the thought process between the blocks of productive writing time.
That's what I'm going to do -- or try to do. Let's see how it goes.
Meanwhile, a few months ago I submitted an article to an academic journal. Not one of the huge ones, but one about a step below that, one that specializes in a period of time rather than ALL of American history. They sent it to three readers. Today, I got the responses. Well, I tell you, I was a total weenie about reading them. I actually forwarded them to the Gentleman Caller and asked him to take a peek to see how bad they were.
Meanwhile, I laughed at myself for being such a coward. After all, I have been saying all semester that going to conferences, and presenting papers, and going to the archives, and pretty much anything else related to being a professional historian makes me feel like just that: a professional historian. A grown-up. Well, part of that is also this: taking the criticism on the chin.
I forget that criticism is not always hostile. I forget that the readers sometimes actually do want you to realize the best article that you can write based on what they are reading. The editor had said that the responses were all over the map, but really, they weren't. One wanted me to push the big picture. One wanted me to cut some stuff that was nothing particularly new. One thought it was pretty much fine, with some tweaking. I can fix all of that.
The final verdict? "Revise and resubmit." Not a Happy Snoopy Dance as yet, but the editor said that they hope that I do revise and resubmit because it is the kind of article that would appeal to their readers. I don't care if they tell all of their "revise and resubmit" authors that. I'm counting this as a small victory, maybe a Happy Snoopy Clap, or a Happy Snoopy Tapping Foot, or even a Happy Snoopy Chair Butt-wiggle.
Nike, the Goddess of Tennis Shoes, said it best: "Just do it." This prompt would have been appropriate for me at some point -- many points -- in the past. Now, my aspiration, the idea that I need to make happen, is my book. All that requires is a little ABC. ABC in the archives, ABC to write grants to finance the archive visits, ABC to round out the secondary reading, ABC to just write. I've beaten this one to death.
Apparently others out there have aspirations that they want to make happen in a library school with a specialization in archives. I get this. That was me at one time. That was not the wisest decision for me at the time (I told you that I was not wise, but a fool), but it was really the lesser of two evils and it didn't seem like much of an evil when I made the choice.
I know those people are out there because they come to my blog to read my series of posts on becoming an archivist. It is a tale of woe, and it is not a series that I would classify as "advice." I wrote it to figure out how I had gotten into a particular predicament. I'd say that, had I taken the library school path when I had finished my master's degree, or when I had finished college, or if the library degree was an undergraduate degree (and, trust me, where I went, the degree really was undergraduate level at graduate prices), then the whole story might have worked out differently. But, I didn't, and wandered down the road not taken far too late. I had changed in some fundamental ways that I hadn't anticipated and -- well, you can read the series.
In any case, for those of you who are stumbling across those posts, if you want some real advice, here is about all that I can offer:
1) Don't go to a private school. Seriously. I don't care if they claim to be the only archival program in the region, the price tag of the degree is not worth it, especially if you have to take out loans. Go to a public school.
2) Get a job in an archive or a library. This may be difficult, especially when you see one of the other items further down the list. Volunteer if you have the time. The truth of the matter is that the experience is what will get you a job -- and they want tons of experience and skills for some really sad salaries and hours. The degree is often a formality, at least in my experience. Remember, in my experience, in the last archive job that I had, I was replaced by a volunteer with NO experience.
3) If you have a graduate degree in anything else, keep that to yourself, especially if it is a PhD. There is a lot of bad blood there for lots of reasons.
4) Do not listen to any of your professors' advice about the job market or working in archives unless they are adjunct. I'm not kidding. The adjuncts have the jobs, they have been on the job market, they have been on the search committees. They have an idea about what is in demand in archives and libraries. Your full-time professors only know the academic job market. I even had two professors who had never worked in an archive or a library, ever. Also, all of the really hideous advice that I or fellow archivists got -- advice like "with a PhD you'll be hired right away at a salary of at least $60,000 and perhaps even as a director of an archive" -- came from the full-time professors who hadn't worked in a library in 20 years. So, go to the adjunct or someone actually working in a library for advice. Also remember #2 above.
5) Be aware that, when you get out of the program, you will be entering one of the most ridiculous job markets out there, as evidenced by the posts in the blog You Ought to Be Ashamed. The bloggers are not kidding nor pulling out extreme examples. How many profession would have the gall to offer an hourly wage for a person with a professional degree and however much experience they demand? I read job ads like that back in 2003 and they have only gotten worse. That's not the librarians and archivists doing that, either. Those types of ads result from the same problems with funding that we in the education systems have: people who don't want to pay taxes but want the best public services, then justify not funding those service on the grounds that they aren't giving optimal service, which they can't because they are underfunded.
Don't get me started!
Where was I? Oh yeah.
This is all to say, if you come here looking for advice on becoming an archivist, this is the best I have to offer. In any case, there you are: Actions to or not to take when making this idea of being an archivist happen.
Clearly, this prompt did not serve its intended purpose. Now, I'm trying to come up with one that will serve as a good alternate. Hmmmm. This one is completely unrelated.
Prompt: Why do you specialize in the field that you study? I don't mean in general, like "history" or "literature" or "medicine" or even "library science," I mean the particular specialty in that area? What were you trying to understand and why? Where did that line of inquiry lead you?
Sunday, December 12, 2010
Twice this week I've encountered something that left me saying, "I have no response to that." The first was when the Gentleman Caller told me that he reads my blog and sees a darker, sadder person than the one he knows in life. The other was in reading this prompt. This seems to be another prompt brought to you by the muse of bongs.
The wording is kind of interesting. Not the implication that people do feel like their mind and body are separate and don't feel the integration of the two. Note that the first sentence distinguishes between "you" and "your body," but the second brings the mind in as a third entity? The prompt invokes a mind, a body, and you, which is also "YOU, alive and present." Oh, jeez! Now I'm imagining all of this and feeling all jittery trying to separate the concept of the mind and the body and the you and the YOU, alive and present, and I have NOT been paying tribute to the muse of bongs. Of course, the jittery may be courtesy of my very large cup bestowed by my own muse.
Despite my mocking, I actually kinda get what this prompt means. As I have written, I put myself through a hell of eating disorders in my teens and early twenties. The disorders themselves -- that is, the behavior -- ended long ago; but, now, I'm not so sure the body dysmorphia ever went away. It got weaker, but didn't go away. All of which is to say that I haven't so much felt integrated or alienated from my body as locked in mortal combat with it. Not with a disease, like cancer, but with my own warped perceptions.
In my teens, I would often look down at my lap while I was sitting, seeing the natural spread of my thighs, and think that I wanted them to shrink, to get thinner, while all of the time wondering how thin would be thin enough. Then, I would realize that I wanted to completely disappear. This idea of disappearing did not disturb me. I just couldn't think about it too long because then I'd have to figure out why I wanted to disappear and then I'd probably have to do something about it and then I'd realize that I had no idea what to do about it and then I'd be much sadder. So I went to an aerobics class or dove into a book so I wouldn't have to think about it further.
That desire to disappear went away, mercifully. Now, I like doing things that make me feel the ability of my body. I like feeling that kinetic power in my limbs when I run a long distance (ran 9 miles last Friday!) or when I realize that I can still do a back bend (I think it is called "camel" or "wheel" or something like that in yoga) or stretch my legs all the way out to each side. I love the endorphin rush afterward, too.
This is all to say that -- again, despite my mocking -- I get the question, the feeling of being in your body rather than part of your body, like, say, a little alien creature riding about inside of a giant, person-shaped vehicle. It's much like the sensation of first putting on glasses and becoming aware of the frames around the edge of your vision. I would have intense periods of that feeling as early as age 6. In the first one I can remember, I felt myself looking through my eyes at my mother, my grandmother, and my grandmother's sister and thinking, "why? They are all going to die." Yeah, I was depressive and morbid even then; and wore myself out trying not to be.
Again, all of that has gone away thanks to the miracle of modern pharmaceuticals, modern psychotherapy, and simply saying "what the hell" and grasping toward anything that took me somewhere that might be better.
I still haven't answered the question; and I don't think I care to. In letting all of this spill out, knowing that I also have used this sort of mind/body language to describe what my therapists have called "dissociation," I realize that the metaphor is no longer entirely useful nor is it entirely descriptive of my own experience in my body. It isn't un-useful, it is just too shallow. Furthermore, the implication -- or maybe the inference -- is that the integration is always a good thing. A little bit of dissociation is not necessarily a bad thing.
Anyway, that implication -- or the inference -- that the outcome of the prompt writing will always be positive shows through either the wording of the prompt or in the way that it is couched in the self-help language prevalent in popular culture is the most off-putting thing about these prompts. Perhaps that is because the prompts are meant to be shallow, allowing the writer to take it wherever she wants. Perhaps that is because that self-help language is, in fact, so incredibly prevalent that imagining a different narrative from one celebrating perseverance or uplift or redemption is a revolutionary act. How do you phrase a prompt that will produce a more complicated story? How do you write that complicated story -- or, rather, end it? The ending is so crucial.
All of which is to say that I'm having difficulty complicating this particular prompt because of my own limited skills in revolutionary imagination. The wisdom prompt provoked my alternate disturbing prompt because wisdom -- and I began to question what wisdom was supposed to mean -- would probably come from facing that Smoke Monster living on the limits of your understanding of yourself. The party prompt led to the vice prompt for reasons about which I am not entirely certain, but seem to be related to the fact that I'd rather hear someone tell about their vices than their parties. The vices might reveal something more interesting about them, too. So, I'm trying to come up with an inspired alternate prompt for this one. One that might produce something more complicated or one that is at least snarky.
Perhaps the old turning-the-question-on-its-head trick might work? I think of the times when I became particularly aware of my own race or my gender or even my age -- something about my outward appearance about which I could do nothing -- and felt the opposite of mind/body integration. The first time was probably in the second or first semester of teaching when I was describing the Mexican War and referred to the American troops as "we." "We" had hardly left my mouth when I realized, looking out over my class of predominantly Hispanic students, that not all of us in the room were part of that "we." Yeah, I just figured that out right then, too. Cluelessness runs in the family, too.
I still get that feeling of sudden disjunction, like when I'm the only white person in the room when teaching African American history. This sudden awareness of my body, a sensation from which my privilege has protected me from for my whole life, and the social implications of being in this particular type of body come into sharp relief. I've felt it when I'm in a group of men who start making sexist joke, or when idiots in public feel the need to catcall. This isn't so much a dissociation, but just an awareness that your body does matter.
So, I suppose that is the core of my alternate, although I can't quite get the phrasing right no matter how many times I revise it:
Prompt: When did you first feel separate from your body? That is, how did you become aware that your race or gender or some immutable feature of yourself set you apart and would in some way define your experience of the world?
Perhaps those are two separate questions.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
I confess that the first thing I thought of when I read this prompt was, "Clean ALL The Things!" I would sing the praises of Hyperbole and a Half except I'm laughing much too hard. I can catch my breath just enough to say that "The God of Cake," contains this passage: "if I was allowed even a tiny amount of sugar, not only would I become intensely hyperactive, but the entire scope of my existence would funnel down to the singular goal of obtaining and ingesting more sugar. My need for sugar would become so massive, that it would collapse in upon itself and create a vacuum into which even more sugar would be drawn until all the world had been stripped of sweetness."
That is totally me. Not just at six, but now. Like today, at age 43. Like, if I were to eat even one M&M right now, I would end the weekend lying on the sofa, drinking eggnog straight out of the carton, face smeared with chocolate, amid a pile of candy wrappers. That would just be the beginning of a binge that might not end until June.
But that's not the point here is it? The point is to make a list of 11 things in order to change my life. Whoo Hoo! To which I respond, "only eleven?" and "why eleven?"
I jest. But, then, my knee jerk response to that wisdom prompt was that I am not wise, I am a fool, which is a sort of jester, isn't it? Like I always say, since my grandfather's last name was the same as one of the actors who originally interpreted Shakespeare's comic roles, I like to pretend that we are related. Foolishness does seem to be a genetic trait in my family.
In all seriousness, the number of things I need to eliminate is probably very short. The first thing on the list would be at least one, preferably two, classes from my teaching schedule; and, at least one of those, preferably both, should be online classes. My job exhausts me in about eight hundred different ways, and the number of classes that I have to teach sits at the top of that list. The rest of the list might sort itself out, in fact, if I had fewer classes. Five is far to many to stay on top of anything; but that's a post for another time.
Fewer classes would, in turn, allow me to be a better teacher because my students would not seem so much like this swarm of locusts, this gigantic mob, but would return once again to individuals. As individuals, I tend to like the majority of them. As a gigantic mob, they peck me to death.
Fewer classes would also allow me more time to read, both to keep up with the literature in the subjects that I'm teaching them and with my own research. The research is most important to me because the research is where my passion lies and the research is where I feel I have something to contribute to the world. Heresy, I know!: Teaching is shaping the future! I just doesn't always feel that way. It usually feels like overwork and being pecked to death. The truth of the matter is, I like teaching well enough, but I NEED to do my research and I NEED to write and I NEED more time for that.
Fewer classes, then, would allow me to work on my own stuff, which would go a considerable way to making me less resentful and stressed out. Sadly, I cannot do a goddam thing about this. (ETA:)To ruminate on that would lead me to answer my own prompt about the most distrubing thing I learned about myself this year. We'll save that for another time.
Anyway, this all leads me to my alternate prompt for the day:
Prompt: What do you need to write?
Because, really, I need to write, and the things that I need to get rid of all relate to making more time to write. I think of Virginia Woolf's musty old chestnut: a room of one's own and a little bit of money. Sure, that passage has become a cliche, almost devoid of meaning; but really, this is serious business, not bong time. Research, writing, and the subsequent publishing all require space, time, and funding.
Getting all three also requires all three because one must write grants to secure future space, time and funding. If you lack even one -- time, in my case -- you end up in a cycle that turns you into an growly automaton and not an active and engaged scholar. The thing I need most to write is time. More than that, I need productive time, not a few minutes at the beginning or end of the day when I'm either waking up or collapsing, and the amount of time is, in fact, only a few minutes, not nearly enough to get going on complicated ideas.
Also, I need caffeine.
I'm learning, too, that I need other people with whom to discuss ideas, who allow me to hear my ideas out loud and who can echo them back to me and help me develop them. This, perhaps, relates to that community prompt. This is also the reason that I felt so great going to conferences this year (despite certain moments of bad behavior on the part of people who should know better), and so depressed upon returning.
Also, I need caffeine.
Of course this is all what I wrote in that second (or was it third?) prompt about writing. You can see that it is a major concern of mine, what with a deadline and all. That particular prompt actually led to a revelation. I was telling my analyst about it when I suddenly realized that I no longer need to fight the Smoke Monster -- at least not as often -- when I begin to write. My struggle to write is finding that time conducive to productivity, not facing my gremlins. They have plenty of other gears to gum up, but the gargoyles seem to have fortified the writing tower very well. I suppose that's progress.
Also, I need caffeine.
I'm not joking about caffeine, either. When I was in college, I went to a party where someone had a book filled with these sort of prompt things. "Where does your creativity come from?" someone read out. The other people at the party said things like, "god" or "my spirituality" or some such thing like that. I knew I sounded shallow, but out of my mouth popped the word, "caffeine." I still need caffeine just as much as space, time and money, in order to write.
Yes, Caffeine is my muse. She's the lesser known tenth one.
Friday, December 10, 2010
Understand that I am sticking by the "Fish and House Guests" rule. Fly in, three days there, fly out, with the point of departure and return being the Gentleman Caller's house. That mere fact will go a long way toward reducing the funk induced by revisiting.
One of the odd things about revisiting Texas is that I oddly expect everything there to be exactly as it was the moment I drove away nine years ago. I am half surprised to run into people whom I used to know who are now greyer, live in different places, completed degrees, received promotions, or found new jobs. While the whole city has continued to move on in a constant state of "revitalization" (god, how I hated that word when I lived there -- it meant destruction and homogenization, not renewal of life), the places that have stayed roughly the same disturb me the most. I hardly recognize places that I once knew by heart and knew since I could first drive. They hardly seem familiar any longer.
The ugliness also shocks me. Not because decay has claimed these places, but because their very sameness reminds me that I could not see that ugliness. I saw other ugliness, but not this. In fact, the further back that I go -- that is, as I travel from the geography of my adulthood to the geography of my childhood -- I hyperventilate from the banality of the landscape.*
I remember then the moment in which I realized that I grew up not knowing beauty, not knowing if I could recognize beauty if I saw it. About five years after I left Texas, I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The grey, drizzly, Boston weather that day meant that the art in the museum had to generate its own light and mood. The art grandly succeed in that task. The Grand Dame herself burst forth from her portrait all afire with life. Madame X (no, not THAT portrait of Madame X, but this portrait of Madame Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau) stretched for a refill in a glow of candlelight. As I walked down a staircase, giggling at the two bunnies fucking at the bottom of the tapestry ahead of me and musing that Gardner must have had a sense of humor, I suddenly felt wrapped in the complicated beauty of both the artists' work and in Gardener's own creativity of arrangement.
"I was not raised in beauty," I realized. No one in my life had an appreciation of any real beauty. Kitsch, sure, but unrecognized as kitsch. Maybe pretty, too, but pretty is shallow. Pretty can be the surface of beauty, but beauty has layers and dimensions that draw you in and overwhelm you. "Now," I thought, "I'm not even certain of my own taste. My own taste is a blank slate." It still is. No, not blank: my taste is a cacophony of styles and trends and interests and extremes with no coherence except perhaps the color black.
As a child, with parents and neighbors and even friends who embraced the banality, sought to increase and expand it, I would have to find beauty elsewhere. When I grew up, I could wander about and find beauty in the limited scope of my existence. I have pictures of lovely little oddities about some of my neighborhoods; but living in a beautiful place still seemed unimaginable and, if I could imagine, unaffordable. To find beauty, I had to go somewhere else. Somewhere else lay in books. In fact, a book brings to mind an image of a Narnian wardrobe; and yes, I read every single one of the Chronicles, twice and undisturbed by the Christianity, because of that very idea of a passage to somewhere better.
Somewhere else, somewhere better, in books got me away from the banality, the screaming and yelling, the constant tremors of violence in my home, the bullying done both to and by me, the attacks on my intelligence, and the particular white collar futility of the middle class expectations of going straight through school to a life of cubicles and suburbs. I walked around numb, and then I hid among the fantastic stories and words of whoever, whatever, and wherever, and forget the mundane, ugly world in which I lived.
This is not to say that I live in a beautiful world now. Access to beauty often has a price tag; but I can find it and create it. When I return to Texas, however, I feel that echo of absence, like the ache in a healed broken bone on a cold wet day: shockingly sharp, painful, and real, but also temporary. In fact, I feel not just the echo of the former absence, but also the frustration of knowing that something was missing yet not knowing what that something was, and the fear that any effort to find that something would just be wasted and disappointing. When I return to Texas, I feel the echo of frustrated fumbling and intense fear.
In the early days after I left, I did pursue opportunities to return to Texas. Preferring the devil I knew seemed like the better option than staying with the devil I had in those days. At least I knew the means of coping with the old devil. The new one? The means of coping with the newer devil were simply lesser demons who also required some sort of survival mechanism.
In the past several years -- in fact, since I've moved to the Zoo, despite my bitching and moaning -- I've found that I have no desire to ever go back there, even for a visit. The ambivalence that I feel about the holiday visit this year has just as much to do with my dread of revisiting as it does with the minefield of the family.
I feel the impulse to end this with some upbeat statement like, "but I am strong enough to survive this" or "but I will return to the Gentleman Caller where I am loved as I should have been, and everything will be alright" or even, "but I'm probably making too much out of this and will have a lovely time and feel guilty about my dread." That feels too canned and formulaic. Not that those statements aren't true, but they are not enough. This is where I feel the limitation of words and my own ability to manipulate them. Words are linear. Emotions and experiences are dimensional, geometry upon geometry, kaleidoscopically, telescopically, microscopically tumbling one over the other with no regard to time.
*We won't even touch the politics in this post. Enabled ignorance and incompetence dominate. 'Tis the land of Bushes, you know.
Thursday, December 09, 2010
Not bad, getting a little better. Still, not quite interesting enough. Let's take this somewhere else:
Prompt: What was the most unpleasant or disturbing thing that you learned about yourself this year? In other words, did you learn or do anything that made you question some fundamental belief that you held about yourself? Or worse, confirmed something about yourself that you didn't want to believe?
Wednesday, December 08, 2010
This one isn't as obnoxious as yesterday's prompt. Still, I have to ask, "are we in high school?" A party? Really?
Well, I went to no parties this year. So, ha! Instead, I recommend this prompt:
Prompt: What is your favorite vice? What about it do you enjoy? When did you pick up the vice? When do you engage in that vice? How often in the past year? How often to you plan to engage in in in the next year? Do you ever feel guilty about that vice or intend to give it up?*
*C'mon, do you really feel guilty about it or plan to give it up?
No. I can't even express why. Just, no.
Also, someone clearly needs to step away from the bong.
ETA: Here's my alternate for the day:
Prompt: What pisses you off most? Why? What do you do with that anger?
Tuesday, December 07, 2010
Some people balked at the wonder prompt. I didn't have a problem with that one. I spend my life in that sort of prompt in order to pull myself out of the melancholy that defines my regular existence. Blame Jungian analysis. It is no mistake that I tag these "Online Therapeutic Ramblings."
No, this community prompt is the prompt that I have a problem with.
I don't object to the premise. After all, most of these prompts are your garden variety, introduction to creative writing or introduction to psychotherapy types of prompts. You go as deep as you want to, or not. You can write your answer to your own question, or the one asked. The whole point is just to write, right? I simply don't want to deal with this question.
If I did want to deal with this question, however, I could take the writing in one of two directions, neither of which I have time for at this particular moment. The first direction would involve the reasons that I don't want to deal with this question. Community takes effort. I don't have the energy to exert that effort, nor the knowledge as to what effort should be exerted. At least, not the knowledge as to how to exert that effort without constantly feeling that the people in the community do not really want me around.
Analysis hasn't quite reached the level of community, yet, beyond my realization that this issue is a whole big thing connected to the string of really nasty communities to which I have belonged in the past that have left me with the feeling that the effort of creating or belonging to a community might not be worth the effort, that I wouldn't want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.
Actually, I've moved beyond that. I can now find communities that are very much worth the effort. I just live in deep and desperate fear that the functional community will ultimately discover that I am not worth having around. After all, who wants a person who bitches and moans and is socially awkward around all of the time? Who makes odd and ill-timed jokes that rub people the wrong way? Who says things that come out wrong and offends everyone? Who seems completely clueless as to how to keep a simple conversation going? I must save them from myself!
Ah, the smell of alienation in the morning! Smells like sheer and utter defeat. You can see why I wouldn't exactly want to go down that road.
The other direction has nothing to do with me. When I took a creative writing class, the instructor had us do similar, free-writing exercises, except we were supposed to direct them toward our project. That is, if the prompt were something like, "how did you get your name?" then the "you" of our prompt would be one of our characters. I began to think that this might be an interesting exercise to use for a historic subject, just to toss around and explore different ideas about them.
The person I was considering for this prompt was Anna Murray, the first Mrs. Frederick Douglass. I am giving a paper on her in February, and want to propose one for a conference. The February paper will be an overview of her life, a 45-minute biological sketch of her in which I draw out the several themes of her life.
One of the themes I am trying to tease out in research is this idea of community. Who was her community? As her husband became ever more famous and travelled in circles that often disdained or condescended to her, as her husband brought white women to live in their home as his intellectual companions (and perhaps more), as she lost one daughter and her husband sent the other away or encouraged her to emulate those white women, who did Anna turn to for friendship, comfort, familiarity, and conversation. To whom did she bitch about her husband? Who did she have to leave behind in Baltimore to follow this husband into this new life? Who did she leave behind in New Bedford and Lynn to follow him to Rochester? Who did she lean on when he spend years in Europe? We know about his community, but what about hers? The two were not necessarily the same, so what impact did that have on their marriage and how did that affect how each defined themselves.
So, you see, I could write a lengthy post from the point of view of Anna Murray Douglass here. In fact, I really really really want to write it. The problem is that the clock struck 7 am twenty minutes ago and I really need to hop in the shower and put on the costume for the day so that I won't be late for my first class.
Hey, maybe this Reverb10 program will have a prompt about burnout? Because -- damn! -- right now I'm as burned out as a heretic. Feel like one, too.
Prompt: What has burned you out this year? Describe the burnout. What were its contributing factors? What did it keep you from doing? How did it consume your time and energy? What will help you overcome or avoid the burnout next year?
Too negative? Do you not want to be part of a community with me anymore? Should I protect you from my tsunamis of gloom?
Well, I will, for now, because I have to hit the showers.
Monday, December 06, 2010
Heh. Been there. Done that. (That is, assuming this "make" means something in the area of "arts and crafts.")
Right now, I want to make a book.
Sunday, December 05, 2010
I never let go. I seem to be an emotional packrat, which is not something that I recommend.
Sometimes certain ideas or behavior fade away; and since I've entered analysis, I find that many of the ways that I've functioned in life -- that subconscious rulebook or system of belief -- are no longer useful. Unfortunately, being aware of those systems doesn't make them go away. You can't just "let go." They served a particular function in your life, like keeping you from being beaten or allowing you to get from day to day without wringing someone's neck. You have to replace those systems of belief with something else, and you have to trust that the new system will not cause your entire world to fall apart.
I imagine this in religious terms when I try to explain to people who haven't had to go through the process of un-fucking their own heads. Religious people go through life honestly and completely believing in a supreme deity, maybe more than one. Then, they might have a crisis of faith, one that causes them to doubt that deity or the existence of that deity. What will this mean to their world if they alter their beliefs about the deity, or even cease to believe in that deity at all? Will they go to Hell? To walk away -- to "let go" -- of that belief system is perhaps a greater leap of faith than believing in it. Not so easy.
Also, not so clear cut. Not so immediate or instantaneous or easily described only months after it supposedly happened, as the prompt implies. You often don't realize that this has happened for years, if ever. You don't so much "let go" as "re-learn."
If I've "let go" of anything, it hasn't been in the past year but the past several years or the past decade. The real process was not "letting go," either. "Letting go" best described the loss of certain key friends. "Loss" isn't really the right word either. Whatever made our friendship a friendship was not longer there, whatever we needed out of each other we no longer needed and had been replaced elsewhere.* Geography made the drifting process much easier; and, for me, a change of location was all part of the real process for me, inseparable from whatever I was becoming. But that "letting go" really symbolized something else going on with me (and, of course, with them). I saw myself as headed toward something else. Whatever fit the metaphor of "letting go" I only realized in hindsight.
Removing something from your life is perhaps much harder to think about doing than adding something. Adding draws you forward and gives you something to do. Removing is much like a story my first therapist told me about a guy -- it may have been Freud -- who wanted to forget about another guy, Freddy. So, to stop himself from thinking about Freddy, he put a sign on his desk that said "forget Freddy."
Jeez, now that I think about it, I understood the story at the time, but I was still left with the question, "how, then, did he go about forgetting Freddy?" The sign wasn't the way to forget, so what was, dammit?
Now that I think about it, too, asking that question was probably among the first moments in which I began to reject my parents' wallowing or pursuit of immediate gratification and start running toward something else.
This is all so very vague, which is to say that the terms of this prompt aren't really descriptive of my experience, despite the fact that I use the same language myself all of the time. Maybe I need to "let go" of the language of "letting go"!
*In one or two cases, the last time that I spoke to the people in question, they had called me, and for the first minute or two of the conversation I thought, "wow! I've missed this person." By the fifth minute, I remembered why I hadn't talked to them in a while. In one case, I started to feel physically suffocated by their conversation.
Saturday, December 04, 2010
my last post. Much of what I talked about in that post about the awkwardness and sense of being what we imagine children are like is perhaps more commonly called "wonder." Leaving your common realm of experience is wonder-full and I embrace it when it comes along; but, I don't consciously "cultivate" it.
The reasons that I don't cultivate it probably go back to the post about the things that prevent me from writing: my job. When the semester is in session, especially from the middle and growing in crescendo to the end, all I can do is focus on getting from one day to the next. Then, getting from one day to the next and finding time to sleep. The closest I can often come to "cultivating wonder" is through books. If I can steal a moment away to read, then I might come across a new idea, or a set of ideas might click into place to create a new shape, or I might read a passage or a story that is so surprising and unique that I find myself in that state of wonder. Alcohol sometimes helps.
Nonetheless, I don't pursue this for some really fucked up reasons going back to my fucked up, subconscious rulebook -- the one I'm trying to throw out. I remember reading as story about a Civil War general who would not allow himself to indulge in the things that he liked. His friend -- another general -- had given him a coat that he adored. He put it one, admired it, and then put it away, never to wear it again. He was afraid that he liked it over much. I got that. If you really like something, if you pursue it, then that could be the thing that you focus your entire life on to god-knows-what kind of disaster.
My dad was very much like that. My mother pursued her own gratification to the expense of everyone around her. Still, she was never satisfied, mostly because she was always looking for something instant, something that did not require introspection or serious questioning of the choices that she had made in life. She pursued gratification but remained miserable.
My dad, partly because of his own personality and partly in reaction to my mother (at some point in marriages, the two become inseparable, I think), would never let himself enjoy anything. He was intensely miserable. He hated his job, hated his wife, wasn't particularly happy with his kids; all the same as my mom. If he were to allow himself to enjoy something, to pursue anything that gave him joy outside of the limited scope of what he decided should make him happy (but wasn't), then he might abandon all reason and responsibility and everything would fall apart. Anything enjoyable was automatically suspect, and misery was a sign of responsibility and adulthood.
As a result, my dad developed a paranoia of "running away" that he imposed upon his children. He could never conceive of "running toward" something. Nor could he understand that "running toward" might simply be another step in your own development. Thus, anything that attracted you, that you liked and wanted more of, was automatically suspect because it provided an alternative, it drew you toward something new and, perhaps, away from your stasis and paralysis. That meant that misery meant you were doing something right and anything else meant that you were doing something wrong, at least in regard to being a responsible adult. We are all supposed to be responsible adults, too, right?
I understand that this meant that he did not go off on flights of fancy, drinking or spending the mortgage payment on toys, or chasing women. This belief kept him at home. Still, these shouldn't be the options: running around irresponsibly, or wallowing in misery to prove your responsibility. There is some middle ground in there. You can be a responsibly adult raising a family and still not seek out and encourage misery by avoiding the absence of misery or pursuing satisfaction. Right?
To bring this back to the prompt: in writing some of these posts, I realize that I adore -- ADORE -- what I have described in traveling, in encountering new ideas, in going outside of the normal range of experience of my daily life. You see it in my desire to fly planes, you see it in the acting classes I have taken, you see it in the travel that I do and the placed that I visit, you see it in the posts that don't involve extreme bitching and moaning. Going outside of the normal range of experience makes me feel alive, makes me feel wonder, contributes to my writing both academic and otherwise. I want to chase after it as much as possible.
Yet, there is the problem with having to make a living, and making a living isn't all adventure and enjoyment. There are the papers to grade and the meetings to attend. There is also the problem that I have internalized my fathers suspicion of being too attracted to constructive experience that does not involve misery. These two factors tend to paralyze me, keep me from seeking because I might be drawn away from the grading, blow off the meetings, and then I won't be a responsible adult and the world will end. Really!
I do, however, find myself open to the opportunity of wonder and life more than I have ever been and also as a part of my daily life. I just don't tend to pursue it or "cultivate it" as the prompt asks. Being open and as part of my daily life, my work, means that I do not have to encourage my father's suspicion of wonder and life, of the lack of misery. I can abandon that nonsense. Perhaps the next step will be to actively pursue it without the worry and guilt that I'm fulfilling my father's greatest fear (and, clearly, dearest wish) of running away. There can, after all, be a disciplined, focused pursuit -- "cultivation" -- that pulls you forward and up.
Friday, December 03, 2010
This I cannot do. At least, I cannot do this right now. Sometimes my current emotional state prevents me from seeing other emotional states. That sounds silly and illogical, but I think I developed the response in all of my years of depression when the thought of a happier time, a more alive time, made me feel even more depressed. Right now, I'm not so much depressed as overwhelmed and often in desperate need of a drink involving lots of rum. 'Tis the season, after all, right? I'm not exactly feeling the opposite of alive, but I am decidedly not feeling alive nor remembering that sensation very well.
All of this is not addressing the prompt, is it? If this were true free writing that wouldn't matter, but I am trying to cleave to the spirit of the thing. Did I have a moment when I felt truly alive this year? Yes. I felt truly alive in England, and for more than a moment. Something about traveling pulls me out of some of the numbness of everyday life, like extreme pleasure or pain. I can go along every day feeling good, bad, indifferent, but all within a certain range or normalcy. Travel takes me outside of that range. The boundaries of sensations expand and I realize that there is more territory of experience to explore than I could possibly imagine.
In England, I felt as if I were in through the looking glass, or in a dream. Everything was exactly the same as in the U.S., but just different enough to throw me off balance. I felt like I was an outsider, but in the best way. I felt that wonder that you imagine a child has, an awkwardness, but an awkwardness excused by my accent. That is, I excused myself my own awkwardness with the money, with the way things operated, with the language (despite it being English, too) and common expressions. I let the awkwardness become newness and I wanted to see all of this newness around me. I wanted to stay in the newness for longer and find more newness, press the borders further and further.
I had a temporal sensation, too. I'm not sure how to describe it. At the time, I mentioned that I imagine places to be exactly as I've read about them, regardless of the year. (Susan, I think that was 34 Charing Cross in which the bookseller says something similar.) When I do visit places with that expectation, I arrive with an awareness of that other time, the one in the Renaissance, or the 19th century, or the 1960s. Depending on the level of historic preservation, I can feel the ghosts of those other times. I look for them. With me, too, I carry an awareness of my younger self, the one who was too scared or too broke to follow this same path, and I want to return to her and tell her not to worry, not to be scared, to go because she will find that facing her anxiety will be fantastic.
In England, I felt both. I walked through Liverpool, aware of the now, aware that I felt like a historian with something to say, aware of my own mind and its abilities, aware of the 1960s and the Beatles, aware of Frederick Douglass and his visits, aware of the shipbuilding and slave trading. I walked through Stratford, aware of Shakespeare, aware of the years between Shakespeare and now, aware of the literary figures who made pilgrimages to his birthplace, and aware of the romanticization of that time and its reality. I was also aware of myself a year ago, two years ago, five years ago, a decade, two decade, and at various points through my life, like a spiral back over the same date every year, and that this moment was the best of them all and that I wished it had taken place much earlier.
That last part makes me sad; but it also reminds me that, however many more years I have left, I can still find newness, I can still go beyond the border of my own experience, and that the new territory can amaze me. That makes me feel alive.
Thursday, December 02, 2010
This one is difficult to answer because it requires a certain amount of brutal honesty with myself that is almost impossible to achieve. Trying to be that honest is like trying to see your own blind spot. After all, does working out take away from writing because I am not actually sitting down to write, or does it contribute because I can get into a groove and think about the ideas and writing problems while I jog? Does reading count? Which reading? Fiction or non-fiction? Which non-fiction?
I suppose the level of honesty will vary according to the type of writing under consideration. If we are talking about just general writing, like blogging, then I can tell myself that everything is contributing to my writing because I’m constantly collecting material, even if it is only things to bitch about. Painting my living room counts under these conditions because it gave me material for a blog post.
If we are talking about my history writing, my academic writing, then I can pile on a lot of bullshit. I can rationalize that even blogging contributes because – hey! – at least, I’m exercising the writing skills. Then, anything that contributes to blogging also, by extension, contributes to the academic writing. Right?
Honestly, however, if we are talking about academic writing, then I can only count that which propels the academic project forward. Only the reading and research that will affect the project can count. Only the writing that involves the project can count. Those both require focus and energy that the blogging and its contributing activities do not.
If the writing under question, then, is the academic writing – and my discomfort and procrastination in actually getting to that point indicates that it is the type of writing intended in the question – then the main thing that I do each day that doesn’t contribute to writing is my job. Teaching and grading and going to meetings and setting up speakers and so on and so forth do not contribute to my writing in any substantial way. The writing can contribute to the teaching, but the teaching – and especially all of the other stuff – takes away the time between classes, which could be spent in writing. Hence, the more of those things that I have to do, the more resentful I become because they take away from the writing. Not that I hate those other things. I just want less of them to do so that I can focus more on the writing.
At the moment, there is not a damn thing I can do about it. This is, after all, my job; and I’m lucky to have a job that at least gives me the tiny bit of time that I do have to devote to writing. Within the scope of the job? Well, I’ve been thinking about that, lately. I have cut down on the number of events that I plan. I’m looking to get off a committee. Mostly, I just have to jealously guard my time for writing and not worry that people will think that I’m not “a team player” or “not doing enough service” or whatever the hell else I’m afraid will jeopardize that job if I just say “no” or not give a damn that I’m not being perfect at the job.
I need to invest the perfectionism in the writing.
Wednesday, December 01, 2010
that song from Rent as an earworm, but I suppose there are worse earworms.) Right now, crushed by the stress of the end of the semester, I have a difficult time being positive, or thinking of anything optimistically. That's also my nature.
Nonetheless, this little exercise has me thinking about the big things that have happened in the past year and I don't even have to place them against the backdrop of "same time, another year" in order to see that 2010 has been a pretty damn good year. I wrote an article, wrote a book proposal, presented at two conferences, went to ENGLAND, saw where the Beatles got their start, saw a Beatle in concert, saw where Shakespeare was born, saw where Shakespeare was buried (which I sorta count as seeing Shakespeare himself -- sorta), went to several conferences, had prominent historians praise my work, got a book contract with a big press in their trade division, started a speaker series at my school (complete with podcasts), started a book group, played a part in the Vagina Monologues, spent the summer living at the Gentleman Caller's house, and realized that love can be something entirely opposite of what my parents and grandparents taught me. (Do not underestimate the power of that last item.)
I'm sure that I'm leaving out so many other things here. Suffice to say that this year has moved me forward. Forward in my career. Forward in my -- jeez, there is no good word here that I can think of that doesn't sound like something from a self-help book about personal growth and development, is there? Forward and upward. In fact, to return to an earlier metaphor, I'm selling myself less and less short and more and more TALL.
So, if this prompt requires me to pick a word, I have to say the word would be "forward" or "TALL." I think I'll go with "forward" because I don't yet feel completely TALL, just less short.
2010 was a forward year for me. Let's hope 2011 is even more forward. More papers, more articles, more chapters, more love. More TALL.
For the rest of the world? Well, I haven't got time for the panic attack in the face of the black hole of sucking regression this morning.
*I found this month-long writing exercise program through Buffalo Mama (who was Bitch PhD in a former blog life) and thought "what the hell?" Dr. Crazy is doing the same thing, too!